#892: The Lost Plane In December, a commercial flight had to make an emergency landing in Iran. They discovered that landing there would be easy. Getting out – much, much harder.
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#892: The Lost Plane

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#892: The Lost Plane

#892: The Lost Plane

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KAREN DUFFIN, HOST:

Early morning last December, Dario Sanguigni (ph) and his girlfriend were heading to the Dubai airport for the first leg of an epic vacation.

DARIO SANGUIGNI: Norway to Denmark to Spain to, you know, Scotland to England, and then to Germany through France.

NICK FOUNTAIN, HOST:

Also Liechtenstein and Bulgaria.

DUFFIN: They're both teachers, so they were on a budget and bought tickets on Norwegian Air, which is basically the Spirit Airlines of international travel.

FOUNTAIN: They get on the plane. Dario settles into his seat next to his girlfriend, and the plane takes off.

SANGUIGNI: My partner, she's got her eye mask on, sleeping away. I'm kind of dozing. And then - I don't know how to describe it - the plane kind of jerked to the left. It was like - you know if you're in a car, and someone was to crash into the side of you?

DUFFIN: Yeah.

SANGUIGNI: That was kind of the pull that I felt.

DUFFIN: He looks out the window, and he sees they're flying pretty close to the mountains - like, a lot lower than you'd expect.

FOUNTAIN: And then things get worse.

SANGUIGNI: The plane starts to bank left, bank right, bank left, bank right. We're over water at this point.

DUFFIN: Oh, my God.

SANGUIGNI: So I thought, something's not quite right here.

FOUNTAIN: The pilot comes over the intercom and says...

SANGUIGNI: Yeah, we definitely got a bit of an engine issue.

DUFFIN: He sits up and looks at the girl across the aisle. She's crying.

SANGUIGNI: Poor girl just burst into tears, and she was grabbing onto her fellow quite tight.

FOUNTAIN: And what the captain says next is pretty disconcerting.

SANGUIGNI: We are just going to do a bit of an emergency landing in Iran (laughter). Everyone was like, what? We're going to Iran? Are we allowed to do that? Is that safe? Is that OK?

DUFFIN: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Karen Duffin.

FOUNTAIN: And I'm Nick Fountain. Are they allowed to do that? Is it OK? Put your seatbacks in the upright and locked position, secure your oxygen mask before assisting others and fasten your seat belts.

DUFFIN: Today on the show, we go with Dario into Iran, where we land in the middle of one of the most contentious fights in the world right now.

FOUNTAIN: Yeah. For decades, the U.S. and its allies have cut off Iran from the rest of the world using sanctions.

DUFFIN: So this plane can land in Iran. But getting out will be much more complicated.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DUFFIN: Flights like Dario's heading from Dubai to Europe have a difficult choice of how to get there.

FOUNTAIN: Yeah. Go in a direct line, and you're flying right over Iraq and Syria.

DUFFIN: Not great.

FOUNTAIN: So you can either go way out of your way over Egypt or go more direct and fly over Iran. Most airlines choose Iran, including Norwegian.

DUFFIN: So back on Dario's flight, the pilots see the low oil warning light, and they shut off the engine. Don't worry - there's two engines. They turn toward the nearest airport in Shiraz, Iran, and they land the plane.

SANGUIGNI: And it was without a doubt the best landing in any aeroplane I've ever been on.

DUFFIN: Smooth landing with only one engine, that is something that Norwegian Air knows how to do anywhere in the world. But everything else beyond that, in Iran, is a question mark. Norwegian Air has never landed in Iran before. They don't have any business relationships in Iran. None of the passengers even have visas.

FOUNTAIN: They taxi to the gate. Everyone gets out of the airplane. And at that point, the flight crew huddles with some Iranians in the airport. And they're dealing with two problems here. First is getting the passengers on to their final destination. And the second is to fix the airplane so it can go back to making money for Norwegian.

DUFFIN: One hour turns into three hours, four hours. And finally, the captain comes back and says, all right. Here's what we're going to do.

SANGUIGNI: So we've obviously not been in this situation. This is uncharted territory. So what's going to happen is we're going to take you to the hotel. One catch - you don't have a visa for Iran, so the deal is you need to leave your passport at the airport.

DUFFIN: Whoa.

SANGUIGNI: Yeah, exactly.

DUFFIN: Everyone's like, I've seen this movie, and it does not end well.

SANGUIGNI: Yeah.

FOUNTAIN: No one is thrilled about this, but they don't have a choice. So Dario hands off his passport, and everyone heads to a hotel.

DUFFIN: They're kind of surprised by where they end up because, you know, they flew in on a budget airline, but the hotel that they go to...

SANGUIGNI: It was absolutely lush. People were super friendly, welcomed us in. There was a gentleman playing the piano, which was rather nice. And then there was just, you know, a buffet of food and drinks.

FOUNTAIN: But Dario was tired. He just heads to bed. He's actually really happy to be there, he told us. He can now check Iran off his list.

DUFFIN: Not everyone is thrilled to be stuck in Iran.

LIAM MCENIRY: We all just sat around in the lobby just basically complaining.

DUFFIN: This is Liam McEniry. He was also on the flight with his girlfriend. He's from Ireland, says a lot of the passengers were Irish or Scottish.

MCENIRY: We were like, if we could (laughter) have some - a few drinks, we - with all the Irish there, we said we could have had a great night. But there was no bar because it's illegal to drink in Iran.

FOUNTAIN: And it's not like these lads can just go check out the local attractions. In fact, they can't even cross the street.

MCENIRY: I had a really bad headache. So there was a pharmacy straight across the road. I was like, can I go? And they were like, you aren't allowed. No one was allowed leave the hotel because we had no visas for the country.

FOUNTAIN: Sober and exhausted, Liam goes to bed.

DUFFIN: In the morning, a new plane has finally arrived to pick them up. But one last thing before they head to the airport - someone asks the women in the group to cover their hair because that's the law in Iran. And the hotel helps them out. They improvise.

MCENIRY: The hotel provided - it seemed like - old bedsheets.

FOUNTAIN: His girlfriend put one on.

MCENIRY: It looked ridiculous on her because it was - the sheet was, like, huge, and she's got a really small head.

DUFFIN: From there, Dario says the hotel staff bid them farewell. But they did have just one final request.

SANGUIGNI: All the hotel staff were lined up there. They were handing out flowers, you know, thanking us for coming to visit their hotel and thanking us for coming to Iran, you know, as if we had a choice. Can we go into TripAdvisor and, you know, tell them about the - you know, the experience?

FOUNTAIN: They go to the airport, and they are local celebrities by this point. People are shaking their hands. People are handing them magnets that say, welcome to Iran, on them. And they get on the plane and leave.

DUFFIN: Yeah. The passengers got out on a replacement plane.

FOUNTAIN: But now Norwegian has a much bigger problem. That plane they flew in on needs its engine fixed, and U.S. sanctions are going to make that very hard to do.

DUFFIN: They have turned Iran into, like, the "Hotel California" for this airplane.

FOUNTAIN: It can land there, but can it ever leave?

DUFFIN: After the break, we will try to figure that out.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DUFFIN: There is one person who kind of wished he was there in Iran with Dario and Liam - Dean Constantinidis.

FOUNTAIN: Dean's an aviation consultant, worked at Virgin Airlines for a decade, has his pilot license and also just follows this stuff all the time. So he'd been following the plane while this was all happening. In fact, he is the reason we know about it.

DEAN CONSTANTINIDIS: Iran is such a - an interesting aviation space for an aviation geek. There's people who literally go to Iran just to fly on a handful of aircraft that you just can't fly on anymore.

FOUNTAIN: If you love '54 Chevys, you go to Cuba. If your thing is classic airplanes, you go to Iran. Some of the planes in Iran have been flying for 20, 30, even 40 years.

CONSTANTINIDIS: Because of the sanctions that existed for so long, all these classic airplanes - 727s, 707s - have been flying around in Iran for a long period of time.

DUFFIN: The sanctions that created this aviation time capsule were put in place after the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and then tightened in the '90s to try to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. They were then briefly lifted under a deal that we've all heard about, the nuclear deal brokered in 2015.

FOUNTAIN: And Iranian aviation almost made it into the 21st century right at that moment. Right after the sanctions lifted, Iran ordered $39 billion of planes from Boeing and Airbus.

DUFFIN: But then, in 2017, the sanctions were reinstated after President Trump withdrew the U.S. from the deal.

CONSTANTINIDIS: And so Boeing didn't even start manufacturing the airplanes that were in order for those airlines. There was a last-minute dash, I think, in the 24 hours leading up to the embargo kicking in where I think Airbus ferried in around six ATR 72 aircraft just in trail, like an hour behind each other, just to get them in there.

DUFFIN: (Laughter) Like - OK. We're not exactly sure when they were delivered, but the planes that made it into Iran were three from Airbus and 13 from another manufacturer.

FOUNTAIN: So here's where we are. Norwegian needs to fix its engine. But under the sanctions, you can't import technology with more than 10 percent American-made parts.

DUFFIN: And if they want, you know, a hall pass from the U.S. government, if they want an exception to that rule, their first call will be to the Treasury Department or specifically the Office of Foreign Assets Control, or OFAC.

FOUNTAIN: About that.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: The Treasury Department Office of Foreign Asset Control call center is currently closed due to the government shutdown.

FOUNTAIN: Yeah. The majority of the time that this plane has been stuck in Iran, the U.S. government was shut down.

DUFFIN: But it's safe to say that Norwegian did not just sit around. They probably called a few lawyers who know how to navigate sanctions.

FOUNTAIN: So we called one, too. His name is Erich Ferrari.

DUFFIN: I feel like for every case that you work on, you must have one of those, like, serial killer walls with red yarn.

(LAUGHTER)

ERICH FERRARI: Yeah. I mean, there's a lot that goes into it.

DUFFIN: Getting an exemption to international sanctions is - surprise - complicated.

FOUNTAIN: So we're going to simplify it into three options.

DUFFIN: The first one - read the fine print. There are some exemptions that are written directly into the sanctions.

FERRARI: You're able to just proceed so long as you're able to prove that all the conditions are met.

FOUNTAIN: But triple check. If you're wrong, you'll get big fines, and possibly even jail.

DUFFIN: And we can assume that Norwegian has already done this - read the fine print. We did call them. They, understandably, did not want to get into detail with us.

FOUNTAIN: Which brings us to No. 2. Let's say, and we don't know this definitively, that Norwegian needs an entirely new engine.

DUFFIN: If some other country - say, Germany - has this engine, Norway can borrow it for, like, a one-time pass into Iran.

FOUNTAIN: But intentions matter here. Norway can't just call Germany and ask them to buy an engine. Germany has to just randomly have it there, lying around, which, if we're being honest, is a bit of a long shot. So those first two options are basically legal loopholes. The third one is where you straight-up ask the U.S. government for an exception.

FERRARI: OFAC has wide discretion to grant licenses if there is a determination made that it's in the national security or foreign policy interests of the United States to do so.

FOUNTAIN: National security and foreign policy are the key words there. As much as Norwegian wants to say, come on, OFAC, we're losing money out here...

FERRARI: I mean, it's inherent in sanctioning that somebody's going to lose money.

DUFFIN: Kind of the point.

FERRARI: Right.

DUFFIN: So if he were working on this case and he were going for the pretty please exemption, Erich says he would write a letter that is basically, dear OFAC, if you don't grant us this exemption, this plane stays in Iran, and that is not the purpose of sanctions. Also, P.S., if you let the plane stay there for too long...

FERRARI: You don't have any control over what might happen to that plane - if it will get confiscated or seized by the government.

DUFFIN: So, like, if you want to be the ones to give Iran a brand-new, fancy plane that you created sanctions specifically to prevent them from getting, you know, be our guest. Go for it.

FOUNTAIN: Obviously, this is not what the sanctions are trying to do. The U.S. is not trying to disincentivize pilots from making safe emergency landings. They're also not trying to keep this $100 million airplane owned by one of our allies stuck on a tarmac in Iran, losing, by one estimate, half a million dollars every month it's there.

DUFFIN: But this is the thing about U.S. sanctions. The U.S. casts a very wide net. The sanctions don't just punish Iran. They're meant to actually cut off Iran from the rest of the world. And the way they do that is by penalizing anyone from anywhere who tries to do business with Iran.

FOUNTAIN: Which is how the United States got in the middle of Norwegian's business and Dario's vacation.

DUFFIN: Now that the U.S. government is, at long last, open, Norwegian can start down this long and complicated path.

FOUNTAIN: But as we sit here recording this, the plane is still in Iran.

DUFFIN: Dario and his fellow passengers - they did get out of Iran.

FOUNTAIN: But not without complications. Few minutes after they took off...

SANGUIGNI: Bing. This is your captain speaking. Due to the increased capacity of people on board and the stronger-than-expected headwinds, we actually don't have enough fuel, and we're going to have to do another emergency landing. We're going to stop off in Poland this time.

FOUNTAIN: Yeah. Apparently because a new crew had to fly the plane in, there were just too many people on board.

DUFFIN: Were you like, really? Now are you just pranking us?

SANGUIGNI: Everybody burst out laughing. Everyone was just, like, looking at each other, going, of course there's not enough fuel. Of course we need to do another emergency landing. Why not?

FOUNTAIN: After that, it just turned into a party.

SANGUIGNI: And then there was a couple of Irish people in front of us, and they went and got a portable speaker. People started singing. There was a whole singalong going on. There was Christmas music up and down the plane so it was - you know, people were conducting from the front of the plane to the back of the plane.

DUFFIN: I feel like Norwegian got pretty lucky here. Like, this is kind of the worst possible customer service, international relations nightmare, and they get a bunch of, like, chill Irish and Scottish people like Dario onboard.

FOUNTAIN: Yeah. It was their one stroke of luck.

SANGUIGNI: Yeah, absolutely. If you have the chance to go on a plane that's got engine failure to land in Iran, I say take it. Go for it.

DUFFIN: (Laughter) I will. I will take that under advisement.

(SOUNDBITE OF FREDERIC AUGER SONG, "FUTURE SATISFACTION")

FOUNTAIN: Hey, you know Dean, the flight nerd who kind of wished he was on that plane? He's actually a PLANET MONEY listener, sent an email to planetmoney@npr.org, and it became this whole story. So thanks to Dean, and thanks in advance to you. Please, whenever you see something strange happening out there in the world, send us a note - planetmoney@npr.org.

DUFFIN: Today's episode was produced by Darian Woods. Our supervising producer is Alex Goldmark. Our editor is Bryant Urstadt. Special thanks to our intern Rachel Cohn, who did excellent research on this story. Thank you, Rachel. We also want to thank Darius Rafieyan, Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, Holly Dagres, Bob Mann, the fine folks at Norwegian Air who spoke with us on background, also the people at OFAC who did get back to us despite, we are sure, a huge post-shutdown backlog.

FOUNTAIN: I'm Nick Fountain.

DUFFIN: And I'm Karen Duffin. Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF FREDERIC AUGER SONG, "FUTURE SATISFACTION")

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